The Devil is in the Details

During an appeal hearing for a non-English-speaker who had been convicted, sentenced and incarcerated for many years, I served as Court Interpreter. In the course of the appeal proceeding, both the Prosecutor and Judge referred to the translated transcript of statements made during interrogation by police as irrefutable evidence that the petitioner had confessed to the crime.

During an appeal hearing for a non-English-speaker who had been convicted, sentenced and incarcerated for many years, I served as Court Interpreter. In the course of the appeal proceeding, both the Prosecutor and Judge referred to the translated transcript of statements made during interrogation by police as irrefutable evidence that the petitioner had confessed to the crime. The appellant consistently and vehemently denied that he had ever made such a confession and that the statement attributed to him in the English transcript was “a lie.”

Being keenly aware of the potential for error existing in translated transcripts, particularly when both functions are performed by a single individual without benefit of review by another having the ability to confirm accuracy, comparison of the original statement recorded in Spanish with the subsequent translated transcript in English was indicated. When statements made in another language are then transcribed and translated, the slightest errors in the former can be exponentially multiplied in the latter. During a recess, review and comparison of the oral statement in question with the transcript and its translation were performed by myself and another certified court interpreter pressed into service, independent of each other. (This process was made more difficult and time-consuming due to the transcript not being time-stamped and the translated transcript being an entirely separate document.)

The alleged confession attributed to the accused in the English transcript, which had been assumed to accurately reflect the statement made in Spanish was, in fact, never uttered. The inaccurately translated transcript had transformed a spoken hypothetical into an absolute statement of guilt. The erroneous addition of an accent and comma resulted in “if” spoken in Spanish becoming “yes” in the translation – damning evidence upon which the Prosecution and Bench relied during trial and sentencing. Suffice it to say that reactions to this revelation ranged from outraged horror to relieved vindication.

Si lo hice = If I did it

was translated as:

Yes, I did it = Sí, lo hice

As illustrated, the addition or elimination of a single character may dramatically alter the content of original statements. But, these are not the only problems attributable to quality control procedures being inadequate or entirely absent. There are also cases in which substantial segments of dialogue were found to have been omitted from transcripts and their translations.

Contributing to the problems that arose in this case were the formats used in both the transcript and translated transcript. In order to quickly and easily locate and compare a transcript with original spoken dialogue, it is essential that the transcript be time-stamped. A translated transcript should not only be time-stamped, but employ a double-column / side-by-side format, with the foreign language transcription appearing in the left column and the English translation on the right. Alas, the State of Nevada does not impose these standards, which leaves responsibility for utilizing appropriate formats resting with competent language professionals.

There is nothing inherently inappropriate in a single individual serving as transcriber and translator, provided he or she has the requisite skills and ethics to competently function in multiple capacities. However, in such instances it is imperative that, at the very least, critical portions of the work product undergo independent review by a second qualified individual to ensure accuracy. When justice, liberty and perhaps life hang in the balance, there should never be doubt as to whether transcripts and their translations are true and complete representations of statements made in another language.

The ability to ascertain the accuracy of translated transcripts at any point in judicial procedure hinges on the availability of recordings of original statements. In addition to deterioration over time, the rather fragile nature of audio recordings on tape renders them susceptible to damage during transcription, as it’s often necessary to rewind and replay segments multiple times due to cross-talk and other extraneous noise interfering with audibility. To ensure that original statements are preserved, a more durable archival method is necessary.

As a language professional, I not only strive for perfection in my work, but subject critical material to independent review to certify accuracy. As interpreters, transcribers and translators we become the voices of those who cannot speak for themselves. “Close enough” should never be considered acceptable and it is incumbent upon those of us working in the field to establish and adhere to rigorous standards. My involvement with various language-related organizations stems from recognition of our profound responsibilities to those we serve and commitment to the profession.

2 replies on “The Devil is in the Details”

I was appalled to hear of this case of the misplaced comma, and applaud your efforts to rectify the incorrect translation. I would like to introduce myself: I am fairly new to the field of court interpreting. I am a registered French interpreter (native fluency) in Oregon, although now living in the Washington, D.C. area. I also occasionally have been asked to do Dutch interpreting. (I spent formative years in Dutch schools in The Hague.) I have limited myself to low-level traffic cases, as I know my Dutch is not as fluent as my French. My question is, how do you maintain your fluency in Dutch? I was very disappointed when financials cutbacks some months ago forced the Dutch government to shut down its online radio station broadcasting. None of the commercial stations I have found contain serious news and commentary. Can you suggest some alternatives? Best regards, Teri Sprackland

Hi Teri, thank you for your kind words! I hope your services are in great demand in DC; I’d think much more so than on this side of the US, due to the abundance and vicinity of diplomatic posts. Funny that you mention The Hague, though: that’s precisely where I was posted, before coming stateside! Now, speaking of Dutch and keeping at the very least passive skills up… As you probably know, Radio Nederland has been virtually gutted, sadly. And I mourn that as a personal loss as well because years ago – when I lived in Hilversum – I actually worked there, as news editor and translator in the Spanish language department, prepping broadcasts intended for the Americas. So I wholeheartedly agree; the disappearance of that highly valuable two-way cultural window on the world is an incomprehensibly ill-advised and myopic decision. However, there are fortunately some alternative, quality resources available within reach thanks to the internet, certainly for our more narrowly defined applied linguistic purposes. If you haven’t checked out Uitzending Gemist yet, I’d recommend you do so. Although their offering also suffered greatly from the mind boggling deep cuts that have left the traditional very peculiar Dutch public broadcasting system reeling on the brink of a total implosion, there’s still enough quality programming available there to enjoy at the very least a good taste of that eigenzinnige maar toch ook bijzonder dierbare kikkerlandje. By the way, here’s a tip, in case geoblocking (for IP / copyright purposes) gets in the way of watching certain content that is restricted to viewing only in certain areas: subscribe to one of the quality VPN services (e.g. here or there) to circumvents the issue. At any rate, I hope that that answers your question; thanks again for dropping by, and graag weer tot ziens!

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